The Perpetuity of the Church

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“…Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18

Someone has estimated that God’s Word contains over three thousand promises to men. The Lord has never broken a single one of these promises. The Lord and His Word are absolutely trustworthy .

In Matthew 11:28 the Lord in His Word has promised salvation to every sin-burdened soul who will come to Him in faith. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” John 3:16 is a precious promise of the Lord Jesus. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

The Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely dependable in keeping all the promises He has made. Revelation 1:5 refers to Him as “…Jesus Christ who is the faithful witness…” and Revelation 19:11 describes Him as “faithful and true…” James 1:17 says that in Him “…is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

Our text contains a great promise made by God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the faithful and true witness and so let us focus first of all on

THE PROMISE OF THE LORD JESUS

made in this text. “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

The word church in this verse is used in the institutional sense. Sometimes we speak of the American home. When we do we do not have in mind any particular home, but the home as an institution. In Matthew 16:18 the Lord Jesus is not referring to any particular local church, but to the church as an institution and so the promise He makes in this verse is not made to any particular local church. The promise here refers to the church as an institution.

The gates of hell in this Scripture involve at least two things. The word hell here is a translation of the Greek word hades and it literally means death. Several times the Scriptures use the term to speak of death. For example turn to Psalm 107:18. “Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death.” Isaiah 38:10 says, “I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.”

The picture painted in the term the gates of hell is of the yawning gates of death through which all human beings pass, opening to receive the church. The other thought involved in the gates of hell is Satan and his workers, the principalities and powers who oppose the church of Jesus Christ.

The word prevail in this promise means to gain victory over and it is used in this sense in Luke 23:23 when the Scripture is speaking of the mob which was shouting for Pilate to crucify the Lord Jesus. “And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed” or gained the victory.

“…Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” the Lord says here. What He was actually promising was first of all that death will never put an end to the church. Sometimes the enemies of Christ may think that the church will pass away as soon as the fanatics who now lead it die, but the Lord promises here that death cannot stop the Lord’s church. The gates of death will never swallow up the church. The church will always live and defy the power of death.

Secondly what the Lord is promising here is that the powers of Satan will not be able to terminate the church. The principalities and powers of hell will never be able to stamp out the churches of Jesus Christ .

The main point of this promise is clear. The ekklesia will not cease. The powers of death shall not close it down and the power of Satan and his workers shall not defeat it. Neither death nor Satan and his hosts will be able to stop churches from holding, preaching and maintaining the doctrines of Christ in His Word. Neither the grave nor Satan shall finally and totally gain victory over the church in this world.

The gates of hell shall not, shall not, SHALL NOT prevail against the church! The Lord Jesus Christ has put a guarantee on the church which He has established. A guarantee is only as good as the one who makes it. The fact that it is Christ who has made this guarantee therefore makes it an unbreakable guarantee. Just as the Lord Jesus has made the family an abiding institution, so has He made the church an abiding institution.

There are some terms we sometimes use to describe what the Lord Jesus promises in this verse of Scripture. Sometimes we say this promise speaks of the longevity of the church. Sometimes we say it refers to the invulnerability of the church because the Lord Jesus promised here that His church would be invulnerable to defeat by death and/or Satan.

The term we most often use to describe what the Lord promises in this verse is the perpetuity of the church. As the founder of the church the Lord Jesus has assured us of the perpetuity of the church, that it will perpetually exist on this earth all during this present age till He returns.

Now this is not a promise of perpetuity to any particular local assembly, but to the church as an institution. The Lord’s promise here means that there will always be in existence at all times somewhere in this world true churches of Jesus Christ.

There are other Scriptures which back up the Lord’s promise of church perpetuity in our text. In the Great Commission, for example, the Lord promises His churches a continual existence until He comes again when He promises them His abiding presence with them until the end of the age.

In Matthew 28:19-20 the Lord Jesus says to his churches, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” The Lord says to His churches here that He will be with them alway, even unto the end of the age. The Lord Jesus could not always be with His church if that church ever ceased to exist.

Another Scripture which relates to the Lord’s promise of perpetuity in Matthew 16:18 is Ephesians 5:23 which tells us that the Great Head of the church will preserve the church. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.” According to VINE’S EXPOSITORY DICTIONARY OF NEW TESTAMENT WORDS the word Savior here means preserver and so what Paul is saying in Ephesians 5:23 is that Christ is the Sustainer and Preserver of His church.

The promise of the Lord Jesus in our text then is “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This promise is just as certain as any promise in the Word of God!

A second thing we want to consider in this text is

A WARNING FROM THE LORD JESUS

“Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The word prevail which as we have seen means gain the victory over implies very strongly that there will be danger and opposition to the church. The Lord recognizes in this promise that the church will have enemies and opposition in this world and down through the centuries since the time of Christ, death and Satan have vigorously and viciously opposed Christ’s churches.

There has been great opposition from without to the true churches of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s churches have been plundered and their people have been thrown into dungeons and tortured and beheaded and burned alive.

Much of this opposition has come from other churches, Roman Catholics and Protestants, and it has largely been because Baptists reject the practice of infant baptism. In Switzerland in 1526 the Catholic state church ordered that all who “re-baptized” others should be drowned without mercy and many Baptist preachers were drowned by the Catholic state church. In about 1750 philosopher, David Hume, predicted that Christianity would be dead by the year 1800, but in 1800 a revival, the Second Great Awakening, was in progress. Today Satan still tries from time to time to attack the churches of Christ from without with persecution and even murder by pagans and Socialists and Communists and humanists.

Satan has also attacked the churches with opposition from within. When the world has not been able to stamp out the church by attacks from outside, it has simply joined the church and attacked from within.

When Paul was preaching his farewell sermon to the elders of the church at Ephesus he warned them of the dangers of enemies within. Acts 20:31 says, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”

As a matter of fact some of the worst opposition to the church through the ages has come from within from professed Christians and members of the churches. Satan uses many strategies in his attempts to destroy the church from within.

Sometimes he seeks to bring the church into contempt in the eyes of the world by the scandalous lives of some of its members. He gets preachers to commit adultery or members to swap wives.

Sometimes Satan attacks through the infiltration of the churches by liberals and skeptics and infidels. These liberals get into the churches and teach that the Bible is not inerrant, that there is no such thing as the supernatural, that miracles did not happen, that the Lord Jesus was not really born of a virgin and that He certainly did not rise bodily from the dead. These are just myths or symbolic stories told to teach some deeper religious truth, they say.

Those who pose as friends of the church often have thought and said that the church is on the way out and is as good as dead. Others like those in the so-called Church Growth Movement say that the church has become irrelevant to the sophisticated “baby-boomer” generation and they propose to save the church by employing new and worldly methods for doing the work of the church. A number of these folks don’t even want to call their religious organizations churches since the word has a negative connotation in the eyes of the world so they call their organizations Christian Centers or Christian Fellowship Centers or Evangelistic Centers.

Satan is attacking the churches from within today by bringing worldliness into the churches. Even though Romans 12:2 tells us to “be not conformed to this world” and even though I John 2:15 tells us to “love not the world” and even though James 4:4 tells us that “the friendship of this world is enmity with God,” nevertheless, worldliness characterizes a great portion of the churches today. I often heard my father say that “the world has become so churchy and the church has become so worldly that you can’t tell the difference anymore.”

During this present age all the powers of death and of Satan shall continue to lay siege against Christ’s church but in the end it will all be in vain. We have the promise of Christ that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Our third consideration in this message is in the form of a question:

HAS THE LORD JESUS KEPT HIS PROMISE?

And the answer is, Most assuredly, Yes! Look at our text again! “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Those in the church to whom the Lord gave His Great Commission are dead, but the church has lived on through the ages, making, baptizing and teaching disciples. And there has never been a day since Jesus Christ founded His church when there was no scriptural church in this world.

From the days of Christ’s ministry until now there have always been true churches of Jesus Christ. These churches have been known by different names, but they were churches of Jesus Christ. It would be silly to try to identify the true churches of Christ through the centuries by one single name. But in every age since Christ and the apostles there have been companies of believers who have substantially held to the principles today proclaimed by Baptists.

In other words there have always been churches that have taken the New Testament as their only rule of faith and practice, that have insisted on a regenerate church membership, that have insisted on the need of believer’s baptism by immersion, and that have re-baptized people who have joined them from other religious societies. In every generation there were always those who were never in any way connected with the state churches, but who always rejected these churches.

History abounds with evidence that people holding these New Testament principles and beliefs have existed in every age since the time of Christ. J. P. Boyce, the founder and first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, gave as a reason for establishing that seminary that “…historians who have professed to write the history of the church have either utterly ignored the presence of those of our faith, or classed them among fanatics and heretics; or, if forced to acknowledge the prevalence of our principles and practices among the earliest churches, have adopted such false theories as to church power and the development and growth of the truth and principles of Scripture, that by all, save their most discerning readers, our pretensions to an early origin and a continuous existence have been rejected.” Boyce says here that Baptists by whatever name existed among the earliest churches and have had a continuous existence to the present.

Boyce made this statement in an inaugural address at Furman University in 1856. It is part of his famous sermon “Three Changes In Theological Institutions” which is printed in the book by Timothy George entitled JAMES PETIGRU BOYCE published by Broadman in 1989.

The Lord Jesus never promised His churches that He would preserve them perfectly from error during this age. The churches of Christ have not been perfect or faultless because they have been made up of sinful men and women. Even in the first century there was a lot of doctrinal error in the churches as the epistles of the New Testament reveal, the church at Corinth being perhaps the classic example. But the churches of Christ have maintained the Gospel and the ordinances of the New Testament because the Lord Jesus did promise that His church would have continuous existence all during this age.

This does not mean that each or any local church can trace its ancestry directly back to Christ and the apostles in an unbroken line of succession. Not long ago a certain Baptist pastor told one of our missionaries to watch out for Victory Baptist Church because they cannot trace their church’s ancestry all the way back to Christ in an unbroken line of succession. I have news for that pastor. He can’t trace his church that way either! It is not possible to do so with the historical records we presently have available.

There is just no way of proving by documentary evidence an unbroken succession of churches from the time of Christ till now and it is simply because the relevant historical records have been destroyed. For over a millennium the Roman Catholic church sought to stamp out all traces of Baptist churches in this world. For about 1,200 years beginning in the 400’s AD the Catholic church martyred as many as fifty million people for following the New Testament in their beliefs. A campaign of extermination has followed Christ’s churches relentlessly into many lands and a trail of blood is all that is left in many places as one writer has put it.

The Roman church tried for over a thousand years to destroy every record kept by those who disagreed with them gathering and burning every writing by such persons. Oftentimes the persecuted churches were obliged to destroy their own records so that the discovery of those records would not lead to their own destruction. In many cases the only records concerning Anabaptists which are now in existence are the court records of the Roman Catholic church in which are reported their trials and executions of these people.

The way that we know that true churches of Jesus Christ have always existed in this world is from the promise of the Lord Jesus in our text when He said “…upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Even though we might find no trace of true churches in history, we have the promise of Christ in the Word of God and He has never broken a promise. If ever there came a time when there did not exist a church of Christ on this earth then Christ’s promise has failed.

It is far more important for us to believe that the churches of Christ have existed throughout history than it is to prove historically that they have. Even if we cannot prove it, we must believe it just as we must believe the other revelations of the Word of God. Our reliance for truth and authority is on the New Testament and not on history though history does tend to agree with the New Testament wherever history can be accurately known.

Our authenticity as a church does not depend on the records of men, but on our conformity to the Word of God in the New Testament. Legitimate churches are not necessarily churches that can trace their genealogy unbroken to the time of Christ, but churches that today conform to the pattern for Christ’s churches laid out in the New Testament. The real legitimacy of any church must be found in the New Testament and nowhere else. The important thing for a church is not whether it has a direct succession from Christ and the apostles, but whether it possesses the doctrines and practices of Christ and the apostles. Present possession of the truth is the only warrant for existence at any time with or without human records.

A church must be identified by its doctrines and not just by its name, by the way. Just because a church calls itself Baptist does not necessarily mean that it is faithful to the New Testament in its doctrines.

“Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” From this promise of our Lord we know that the church cannot perish from the earth until the Lord returns and that the church has and will continue even in the face of dungeon, fire and sword!

CONCLUSION

I’m not afraid that Christ’s churches will be wiped out by persecution or that they will die from irrelevancy before He comes again. All of my fifty-nine years on this earth I have heard the doom sayers speak of the danger of the church dying because of irrelevancy or from not caring or from refusal to change with the times, but still the churches of Christ stand!

“Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” Here is great comfort for all of God’s people. After all the assaults and attacks and battles the church will survive and be victorious. To deny the truth of this promise is to charge the Lord Jesus with the inability to make good His word, to keep His promise. It is to call Christ a failure and a promise breaker. Assured by this promise of our Savior let us as Baptists hold fast the truth of God’s Word and renew and increase our efforts to carry out the Great Commission.